Acute and chronic stress increase salivary cortisol: a study in the real-life setting of a national examination undertaken by medical graduates.Stress 2014; 17(2):149-56S
Spanish medical graduates who apply for a medical specialty training position (MIR) must take an examination that will shape their future personal and professional lives. Preparation for the test represents an important stressor that persists for several months. The aim of this study was to elucidate the stress pattern of this group and evaluate possible changes in the circadian rhythm of cortisol release in medical graduates preparing for this test. A repeated-measures longitudinal study was performed, measuring the salivary cortisol concentrations in 36 medical graduates (13 males and 23 females; mean age of 24.2 years) on five sampling days. Five cortisol samples were collected from 07:00 to 21:00 h in order to monitor changes in the circadian rhythm. On all sampling days (except on the day of the official examination), anxiety and psychological stress were evaluated with the Spanish versions of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). During the study period, participants showed higher levels of anxiety than the Spanish reference population as well as a progressive increase in self-perceived stress. A significant increase in salivary cortisol concentration was observed in both chronic (study and examination preparation) and acute (examinations) situations. Our results suggest that the cortisol awakening response (CAR) may be a good indicator of anticipatory stress but is unaffected by long-term examination preparation. Comparison of results between the official examination day and the mock examination days yielded evidence that learning may modulate the behavior of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.